It seems like most Frontier League ballparks have two things in common. First, artificial turf field. Second, immediate proximity to interstate highways.
Joliet’s Route 66 Stadium swims against the current in the second respect, sitting at least a couple of miles from any interstate highway, but only about a hundred feet from an active railroad track. The ballpark is in downtown Joliet, Illinois, and a busy rail station hauling commuters to and from Chicago is right outside the front gate.
The team is named the Slammers, in homage to Joliet Prison built in 1858. The jail is a looming limestone structure on the north side of town. “The Blues Brothers” movie was filmed there in 1980. All of the prisoners were moved over to Stateville Penitentiary just a few miles north of town in 2002.
It’s odd that the owners would name the team after a maximum security prison to promote family-friendly fun. But Route 66 stadium is all-in on the concept. The team store is named “The Clink”. The team logos are a watchtower surrounded by barbed wire and an angry bird wearing an old style prison cap carrying a baseball bat. I realize that the team was founded and named eight years ago before corrections reform was a hot topic. But I hope it’s just a matter of time before ownership changes the name to something a little more welcoming.
In contrast, Slammers manager Jeff Isom is talkative, personable and friendly. He’s an Indiana guy, drafted out of Purdue by the Pirates in 1993. A left-handed pitcher, he bounced around in the affiliated minors until 1996, then played independent pro ball in the Northern and Frontier Leagues.
“I got released eight times, and it sucked every time, but something else always came up,” he said. “I think Fargo released me for like the third time, and (current Evansville manager) Andy McCauley told his manager that he knew me and thought they should bring me on.
“So that was my introduction to the Frontier League, and I got my ass kicked. It was like ground ball after ground ball going through the infield, and I didn’t pitch very well. So needless to say, the manager got fired, ‘cause I didn’t help him out. They hired Andy as the manager and after my second or third start I said, ‘You know what? I’m not helping you guys, I’m releasing myself.
“Andy asked me to be the pitching coach. So here I am, a left-hander who couldn’t get anybody out, and I’m the pitching coach for the rest of the season.”
After he quit playing he chose an unusual career path to managing.
“I spent a lot of time in Fargo, and they wanted me to keep playing. But I told them, ‘Look, I’m done. I hate the off-season, trying to get ready.
“And I got to coach for two years at Lafayette Central Catholic, and then I’d go up and help at Fargo. I think it was ‘99, and I went up there as a bullpen catcher. So here I am, a left-handed pitcher as the bullpen catcher. But I liked being around baseball, and I learned a lot from the manager.
“But that sucks,” he laughed. “A left-handed pitcher trying to catch sinkers and sliders from right-handed pitchers. That’s not fun. But I wanted to stay in pro ball any way I could.
“Actually, my baseball card from a couple years before that I put the (catcher’s) gear on. I just wanted somebody to shoot me behind the plate. Then two years later I’ve got the gear on trying to catch bullpens.”
Through all of his contacts, Isom got a job managing his first year off the field in Canton. In 2007 he got a job managing in the Brewers system, then in 2013 came to the Frontier League.
Like most of the managers in the league, Isom has to do his own scouting and player acquisition. He’s had success in finding players when released by other organizations, and he’s developed an extended web of former players and coaches to get referrals and background information on players. But he took one key piece for his approach from former Brewers manager Ken Macha.
“We were in a meeting in spring training with all of the minor league staff talking about who was going up. And Ken Macha said, ‘When I’m thinking about bringing a guy up, one question I’m going to ask is, can I trust him?’ And after he talked about it that made a lot of sense to me. So that’s a question I ask.
“Can I trust this guy? If we have a 6 AM bus, can I trust him to make it, or am I going to have to worry about where my shortstop is? If I put down a bunt sign, is he going to get that sign and be able to execute? If we need somebody to help out and load some stuff up, am I going to have to ask him five times or is he just going to go ahead and do it?”
I had noticed that the Joliet schedule featured a doubleheader for June 20. Double-headers are almost a thing of the past in baseball unless there are rainouts that require games to be made up. But in this case, the Slammers were playing a morning game in Joliet and an evening game against Windy City in the Chicago suburbs. Which isn’t much more than a 90 minute bus ride, but both teams had night games both the day before and the day after the twin bill. Four games in less than 30 hours. I asked Isom if this was a typical situation in the Frontier League.
Isom laughed. “For me it’s a new thing. We play here at 10 AM, and I’m sure that will end up an extra-inning game. Then we go up there and play a nine-inning game – hopefully. Then games the night before and night after. That’s a lot of baseball in 27 hours.”
Isom said the Slammers needed an early game that day and Windy City was trying to create an off-day for later in the season. I asked if he thought the arrangement would become a regular fixture in the schedule.
“I hope not,” he said. “But at least I’m not going to have to throw batting practice that day.
“Hopefully we’ll have some guys who are well-rested and we wont have to use too many pitchers in those games.”
On that evening, the Slammers were hosting the Lake Erie Crushers. Isom got some practice in juggling his relievers as the Crushers clubbed fifteen base hits, posting a 5-1 lead by the middle of the second inning. Starter Liam O’Sullivan gave up five runs on eight hits over just two innings, but got off the hook for the loss when his replacement gave up the deciding run.
All of the pitching changes gave the fans a chance to visit the concession vendors without missing much of the action. The ballpark specialty is fried cheese curds, but that stand wasn’t open. I don’t know if management was expecting a small crowd, but the front office did ask me to get a ticket instead of just showing my pass at the gate so they could “count everybody in the park”. Their fears were well founded. At its peak around the fifth inning, there weren’t more than three hundred fans in seats.
The ballpark itself has some unique features. A bar just above the seating bowl right behind home plate provides an outstanding view of the field. There’s also an old-timey sculpture of guys watching a ballgame on a building out behind the right field fence. All in all, it’s a comfortable place to watch baseball with a decent beer selection.
Late in the game I wandered out to the grass area behind the outfield fence and found a lone high-backed chair that gave me a view over the right fielder’s shoulder. By that time fans numbered only a few dozen, and, when there were no trains rumbling by, I could clearly hear crickets and the US flag lanyard banging against the flagpole in the wind. It’s hard to imagine a more startling contrast to a jail.